The memorial is easy to pass without noticing, which I did, Tuesday afternoon. What I didn’t know was that there are two memorials erected in memory of the 13,000 Jewish men, women and children who had been held in the Vel d’ hiv, a winter cycling arena, for six days in July of 1942 without toilets, with little food or water, minimal medical care as the temperature inside the locked airless building climbed and climbed, French police, guarding. All the Jews would be shipped to Drancy, a transport center, then to Auschwitz. This particular memorial, I assume, marks the exact spot where the Vel d’hiv had stood. It was torn down in 1958.
I stand on the sidewalk of the Boulevard de Grenelle, just down the street from the Metro station, looking at a fenced plot of land, maybe forty feet by forty feet, the grass too tall and full of weeds. A daisy like weed blooms, a crumpled up piece of paper resting among its white flowers. Dandelions bloom. A low stone wall borders a garden. Like the grass, the garden is overgrown and very dry. A yellow hose coils on the ground under a faucet. A second hose lies among broken irrigation pipe. A plaque honors the dead. A red ambulance sits parked at the curb.
In the sidewalk, a recessed date, a cigarette butt obliterating the last number, but I know the year this site was dedicated: 1994.
A woman wearing faded jeans, a bold red and black striped shirt approaches. Flanked by two girls who look to be about twelve or thirteen, she rummages in her purse. The girls, too, wear jeans, sleeveless shirts, sneakers, one pair pink, the other white. I guess they are friends. The woman holds a tea candle, lights a match, then places the lighted candle onto cement just inside the iron fence. Silently, I recite the beginning of Kaddish, the prayer for the dead, because that is all I know, the first five words.
As they leave, I speak in English. I’m assuming they’re German tourists. They’re Dutch. “That’s was so thoughtful,” I say “to bring a candle.”
“They read the book. Sarah,” the woman says, tilting her head toward the girls. “Sarah,” she says again.
“Ah,” I say. Sarah’s Key.”
“Ah,” I say. Sarah’s Key.”
“Yes,” she says.
The girls nod.
As we speak, the woman, mentions a second memorial, closer to the Seine. Without her, I would not have found the magnificent sculpture depicting a family of five, a pregnant woman and her husband, a woman alone, all victims of the Vel d’ hiv.
I didn’t read Sarah’s Key. It is not a book I would choose. But, wanting an easy way to gather history, I saw the movie. I got the visuals I wanted and more, horror that stayed with me, sensationalist horror. I didn’t think much of either one, book or movie. How wrong I was to judge. Sarah’s Key brought this woman and these girls to the Boulevard de Grenelle, not just to look as I was looking, but to light a candle. And what does this meditation have to do with my Bat Mitzvah? I have been brought to a new place of learning. Dare I say of understanding? I’m too judgmental. But not so judgmental that I can’t learn.